The Christian faith is fraught with many questions and arguments relating to doctrine, one of which is the seeming conflict between the Old Testament and New Testament, especially pertaining to the character of God. Many think the God of the Old Testament is angry and fearful while the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful, which begs the question, “So did God change?”
In an attempt to resolve this argument, there is a school of believers that posit that some authors of the Old Testament did not have a complete revelation of God, thus they sometimes failed to present a correct image of God, filling in the blanks with their own ideas. The teaching is often characterized by negating Old Testament passages that attribute inflicting death, plagues or some adverse circumstance to God.
This teaching, though well-intentioned, finds no support in Scripture and is flawed for reasons I will outline below.
The Old Testament Is Inspired Too
The major flaw of this line of thought is that it forgets that the Holy Spirit is ultimately the author of the Bible, and thus negates and assaults the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy of the Word of God. This doctrine teaches that the Bible was totally inspired by God through the Holy Spirit working in human beings, and is consequently inerrant, that is, true and trustworthy. This doctrine finds support in two main passages:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” – 2 Timothy 3:16
“for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Peter 1:21
“All Scripture”, that is the Old Testament and the New Testament, (and in fact, when that letter was written, the Old Testament was the only part of Scripture in existence), was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Every word that was written was intended to be there by the Holy Spirit who superintended the process. If Scripture expressly records that “the Lord killed him”, as in the story of Er & Onan, or God shut someone’s womb, as in the story of Hannah, then we must take these words as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Consequently, to argue that the author was wrong to say that God shut Hannah’s womb or killed Uzzah for touching the ark, as God could not truly have been responsible for those acts, is to cast doubt on the divine authority and veracity of God’s Word. The implication is that the process of writing Scripture was tainted by man’s inclinations and limitations, thus exposing Scripture to errancy. If Scripture is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit who is perfect, shouldn’t the Holy Spirit be able to ensure that the authors only recorded what was true, free of error and portrayed the correct image of God? Undoubtedly, the human aspect of the writing of the Bible means that the styles, personality and cultural influences of each author seeped into the text (and same is true for the New Testament); however, I believe God, in His Sovereignty, did not allow this taint the truthfulness and reliability of His Inspired Word. Moreover, this school of thought opens the door for all kinds of subjective interpretations as one is forced to wonder what parts of the Old Testament correctly portray God and what parts do not, ultimately leading to cherry-picking.
A common rebuttal is that the people of the Old Testament did not truly know or understand God, neither did they have the full picture of Him, as the image of God is fully revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, hence Old Testament authors inadvertently portrayed a distorted image of God. This is not altogether correct. Here, it is important to distinguish between the sacred writers of the Old Testament and the people of Israel. The people of Israel were constantly rebellious and unfaithful, and did not know or understand God’s character. Right from when God delivered them from Egypt, and led them into the Promised Land, till the lifetime of Jesus, they were a stiff-necked people whose eyes were blind and hearts were hard. For example, in Numbers 14:3, the children of Israel murmured against God saying, “Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?”, depicting a lack of knowledge of God’s faithfulness and goodness. Similarly, God, through the prophet Jeremiah, said concerning them, “For my people are foolish, they have not known Me….” (Jeremiah 4:22). Jesus himself gave the same report about the Jews saying, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matthew 22:29)
However, among these people, God revealed himself to some select few, upon whom was His Spirit. These were priests, judges, kings, prophets – people who had faith in God and were commended for it as shown in Hebrews 11:39, some of whom are the inspired writers of Old Testament books. Through his prophets, He issued messages to the rebellious and disobedient people of Israel that they may know Him, however they did not heed their words. So, although the children of Israel did not know God, did not obey Him nor listen to His messages issued through His prophets, the inspired authors were people of faith who knew God, to the extent that He spoke to them and revealed Himself and His will to them. Of Moses, God Himself said, “I speak to Him face to face, even plainly, and not in dark sayings; and He sees the form of the Lord.” (Numbers 12:8; see also Exodus 33:11; Deut. 34:10). In fact, the psalmist says, “He made known His ways to Moses, his acts to the children of Israel” (Psalm 103:7); the Israelites merely saw God’s powerful miracles, but to Moses, He revealed His character. Isaiah had such a powerful vision of the Lord that he became aware of his sinfulness (Isaiah 6:1-5). Ezekiel had several visions of God that could barely be put into words. And although, David did not traditionally appear to be a prophet, the New Testament affirms in several passages that many of his psalms were prophetic.
How then could these saints of old go beyond the revelations of God shown to them and include their own notions about God, bearing in mind that their prophecies were often given in first-person as God Himself speaking? No, the Bible does not say so, Jesus did not say so, the apostles never taught so, and it is presumptuous to say so. In essence, although the OT revelations are fragmentary, the Old Testament authors portrayed God as He revealed Himself to them, within the confines of human language, exactly as inspired by the Spirit, and these portrayals are true and do not contradict the image of God that Christ presents – because Christ is present, though veiled, in the Old Testament.
It is unarguable that, in Christ, God reveals Himself in his fulness. The Apostle John writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (John 1:14, 18) The writer of Hebrews also says: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…” (Hebrews 1:1-2). To borrow the words of Jamieson Fausset Brown, “In Christ, the revelation of God is full, not in shifting hues of separated color, but Himself the pure light, uniting in His one person the whole spectrum.”
Thus, one of the things Christ did here on earth was manifest the character of God to mankind. A.W Tozer puts it this way: “Christ walked with men on earth that He might show them what God is like and make known the true nature of God to a race that had wrong ideas about Him.” Did these wrong ideas emanate from Old Testament teachings about God’s character? No, because the inspired Word produces no wrong ideas about God. The wrong ideas the people of Israel (and humanity) had about the character of God was because of their lack of knowledge and understanding about God, ultimately traceable to the sin-nature that is alienated from God. Heb. 1:1-2 evidently tells us that God spoke through the prophets first, the same prophets that the people of Israel did not listen to, same prophets they murdered (Luke 11:47-49). The purpose of Jesus’s coming was to embody and fulfill the prophecies, not to negate them.
If we deeply study the teachings and life of Jesus, we will find that He never invalidated what was written in the Old Testament about God’s character nor did He depict a different character from what was written about God in the OT; what He did was reveal that character and establish God’s perfect standards of righteousness and holiness, revealing the inadequacy and imperfection of the permissive and provisional Law given by Moses under the old covenant, in making a man pleasing to God.
Who Defines Good and Evil?
Another flaw in this teaching is its subjection of the Uncreated God to human and simplistic notions of good and evil. In its human understanding, it says, “killing is evil; God is good and does no evil; therefore, God did not kill”, failing to understand that what constitutes evil is not just the act, but the intent, the disposition behind the act, and that God transcends our own fallible views of what is good and evil. Aren’t there unbelievers who think, “How could God give up His Son to die? That’s evil.” Yet as believers we understand that God gave us His son and Jesus offered up Himself because He loved us (John 3:16, Romans 5:8) This shows us that what humans consider to be evil and what God considers to be evil are not the same. Yet, God remains the epitome of all moral excellence.
Rather than refuse to confront seemingly uncomfortable and unsettling portrayals of God in the Old Testament by presuming the writer was mistaken, we must take the written Word as it is and ask ourselves, “The Bible records that God did this and this, why did He act that way and what does this tell me about the nature of God?”
In every passage where it is recorded that God killed persons or sent a plague or delivered the Israelites into the hands of their enemies, it was preceded by a narration of the people’s iniquity and sinfulness. We see statements saying their acts “displeased the Lord” (See Gen. 38:10, Numbers 11:1, 1 Chron. 21:7) or was “evil in His sight” (Gen. 6:5, Num. 32:13, Judges 2:11). And so, we see God’s righteous judgment against sin/evil, and not an evil or malicious God going on a killing spree out of hatred for man or for morbid pleasure. We see an absolutely holy, just and perfect God who detests sin and must deal with sin decisively, because sin corrupts, pollutes and degrades His creation. God’s wrath stems from His holiness and His desire to preserve the spiritual wellbeing of His creation. This was why none of the people who rebelled against God in the wilderness made it to the Promised Land; only their children “who had no knowledge of good and evil” did (See Num. 32:13, Deut. 1:35-39). It was to preserve the moral health of His chosen ones in the “good land” they were about to possess. God’s holiness and righteous judgment, therefore, does not negate His goodness and love. The wrath of God does not reflect poorly on His loving nature. Is he truly a good and loving God if he allows sin and its evil consequences persist?
A correct understanding of these Old Testament passages actually enables us new creatures in Christ appreciate the redemptive and saving work of Jesus. It is that very wrath we see in the OT that Jesus saved us from. Just like the people of Israel, we had the sinful nature and were ‘children of wrath’ (Eph. 2:3) By the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lord laid on Him all our sins and the wrath of God was satisfied (Isaiah 53), ushering us into the dispensation of grace where forgiveness is available for all. And for everyone who believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have right standing with God and are saved from the wrath of God stored up on the Day of his righteous judgment upon the children of disobedience (Rom 2:5, Eph. 5:6). This is the true basis for our unshaking assertion that God will not kill or inflict calamity on anyone because their sins have been paid for by Jesus Christ; God has poured out mercy and grace upon humanity through Jesus Christ, and is patiently calling on mankind to be reconciled to Him (2 Corinthians 5:19). These passages also give us an in-depth understanding of how much God hates sin, that we may walk in a manner pleasing to him. This was the emphasis of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 – “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” After an exposition of the presence of Christ in the Old Testament, Paul cited examples of the Israelites’ sin from Exodus & Numbers, affirming the authority of Old Testament Scripture; if the writer was incorrect to attribute the punishment the Israelites suffered for their sin to God, the Holy Spirit would have moved Paul to say so. But he says, “But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness”, confirming that they were judged by God for their sin.
Apart from God’s holiness, the Old Testament also establishes God’s sovereignty. God is the Source of all life and can determine when life begins and ends (See Psalm 90:3) So, when you say Hannah was wrong when she prayed, “The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Sam. 2:6), you focus on a myopic view of God’s goodness and lose sight of a precious truth: God is sovereign and all-powerful. God Himself had said earlier through Moses, “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” (Deut. 32:39). Jesus teaches this same truth about the Father: “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:5)
It is important to note that the aforementioned passages refer to physical life. People have defended this teaching with John 10:10 saying, “It is the Devil that kills, steals and destroys; Jesus only gives life.” And to that, I pose this question: “when God told Adam and Eve that they would die if they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, did they die physically?” They suffered spiritual death, and Jesus died and was raised to life that we may enjoy spiritual/eternal life; this is what He meant when He said “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” And for everyone who believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are quickened and made spiritually alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5). John 10:10 must first be understood in the spiritual sense: Satan seeks the separation of man from God so he brought about spiritual death, he stole man’s authority and power, but Jesus has destroyed his works. Undoubtedly, Satan, being the evil being he is, also wreaks havoc by causing physical death and all kinds of calamity, but God is ultimately in control of all life. That was why God could expressly command Satan not to take Job’s life (Job 1:12)
Conclusion: There Is No Conflict
So how do we reconcile the revelation of God in the Old and New Testament? Well, the error is in thinking that there is a conflict, that the Old Testament only portrays God as a God of anger and judgment, while it was first in the New Testament, through Jesus Christ, that we come to know God as a God of mercy and grace. Before time even began, God has been and will always be merciful and good. The Old Testament narrates many instances where God withheld his anger and showed forgiveness (Exodus 32:14, 2 Sam. 24:16, 1 Kings 21:29, Jonah 3:10), and contains symbols of God’s mercy that would later be fully fulfilled in Jesus Christ. For example, after exacting judgment on Adam and Eve for disobedience, God made garments for them and clothed them (Genesis 3:21); also, when venomous snakes bit the Israelites due to their rebellion, the Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and hang it on a pole, so that whomever is bitten can look to it and live (Numbers 21:8-9). Here are some OT verses that speak of God’s mercy and grace:
“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin…”– Exodus 34:6-7
“But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” – Psalm 86:15
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” – Psalm 103:8-10
“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” – Micah 7:18-19
“Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” – Lamentations 3:22-23
“So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm.” – Joel 2:13
In Jesus Christ, we see all these Scriptures fulfilled. We see the actualization of God’s mercy, goodness and love towards humanity.
And here are New Testament verses that speak of God’s justice and judgment, apart from those earlier cited.
“Therefore, consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness…” – Romans 11:22
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” – 2 Corinthians 5:11
“For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:30-31
It is evident that God is portrayed as kind, loving, gracious and merciful, alongside the portrayals of His holiness, righteousness and justice in both the Old and New Testament. He is revealed as truly in the Old Testament as He is in the New Testament; both unify to reveal God and His Son, Jesus Christ, in fullness.
We must be careful not to have a one-sided view of God that fits our own mold of what He should be. As believers, we study the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and we do this without sitting in judgment over what has been written or objecting to what we erroneously and fearfully think paints God in a bad light. He does not need you to make him look good; He is good in Himself. The Bible reveals many attributes of God and they are not inconsistent with each other at all. As Tozer writes, “Between His attributes, no contradiction can exist. He need not suspend one to exercise another, for in Him all attributes are one.”
I implore us to take time to study all the Scriptures stated here, even as we maintain an open, humble and teachable spirit. The Holy Spirit will help us understand His Word and guide us into all truth. Amen.
*All A.W Tozer quotes are from his book “The Knowledge of the Holy”